As we’ve previously documented, the internet has served as our main channel to the outside world during the coronavirus pandemic. And because of Section 230 — a federal law from 1996 that helped the internet flourish today — we’ve been able to create and access online content while stuck at home. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that without the internet, life would be much, much worse right now.
But like in any crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has seen bad actors try to exploit Americans, especially online. From swindlers of all stripes to peddlers of disinformation, criminals, cheats, and charlatans have done their best to weaponize our channel to the outside world.
The internet has fought back against misinformation and fraud — and it’s winning.
More precisely, online businesses have fought back. Social media companies are removing false content about coronavirus, and online marketplaces are removing products that promise a miracle “cure” to coronavirus, for example.
Although different businesses have different weapons in their arsenal, all rely on one common defense: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Passed in 1996, this federal law lets online companies remove harmful content and curate content created by users without worrying about bogus lawsuits.
It works like this: If you hawk a dangerous “miracle” drug in a Facebook post, Facebook can remove your post without becoming a co-author of your post and therefore liable for it.
You might be thinking, “How could Facebook be a co-author of someone’s post when it was the one that removed it in the first place?” Well, believe it or not, courts in the early 1990s held that when online businesses screen and remove harmful content, they are liable for all content on their websites because they’re not sitting idly by and letting everyone post anything.
The upshot of this logic: Businesses must let people post whatever they want or else face liability for every post.
Congress recognized that this made no sense and so passed Section 230. Thanks to that law, Facebook and Twitter can remove fake or fraudulent posts about coronavirus; YouTube can remove videos that market in extreme conspiracy theories or tout dangerous drugs; and Amazon can limit what people sell online.
Thanks to Section 230, online businesses were able to move quickly to protect us when coronavirus hit.
Without Section 230, these businesses would have had to vet every single post’s truthfulness and legality. Not only would that have bogged down businesses’ response, it also would have been impossible — we knew little about coronavirus when it first hit and don’t know much more today.
Put simply, Section 230 helps make the internet safer, and that, in turn, has let us all rely on it to keep life moving, even while we’re stuck inside.